Book Review // The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe
Review by Jonathan Brent
One Brief Shining Moment
The Golden Age Shtetl:
A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe
Princeton University Press
2014, pp. 432, $29.95
The history of the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia has a singular place in the Jewish imagination today. To some, it is a dead subject, poisoned by the Holocaust and the lethal anti-Semitism of the 19th and 20th centuries: Either we know everything we need to know about it or there is nothing worth knowing. To others, it is shrouded in the nostalgia-laden distance of the Old Country, a fable invoked around the dinner table, or consigned to the reigning stereotypes and caricatures of Broadway and Leo Rosten. But while we may reject it as intrinsically alien to our day-to-day existence, it is always just under the surface—in the traditions of food, dress, speech and gestures we find ourselves imitating without knowing why. How we relate to this history is often a matter of private reflection reserved for vagrant hours.
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, a professor of Jewish studies and history at Northwestern University, has written a work that should be required reading for all those interested in, perplexed by or driven to madness by this subject. The product of prodigious archival research, primary source materials and mastery of numerous languages, The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe tells a history that has rarely been transmitted in scholarly books, around the dinner table or even in Yiddish literature. The reasons for this knowledge gap are complex: Our parents’, grandparents’ or even great-grandparents’ memories did not extend back far enough; Yiddish literature developed after what Petrovsky-Shtern calls the Golden Age Shtetl was already long past; the paucity of sources in the wake of the Holocaust and the ensuing Soviet period made historical accounts of this era difficult to reconstruct, and finally—I believe, although Petrovsky-Shtern does not claim this—the sheer improbability of a Golden Age in the home country did not fit in the narrative of the immigrant Jewish experience.
The story Petrovsky-Shtern tells is not one of victimization, isolation or the heroic preservation of essential Jewish religious, social or cultural treasures against all odds. It is rather the story of approximately 50 years from 1790 to 1840 during which Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and Russians enjoyed a uniquely fruitful world of relative peace, mutual respect, sharing of resources, language and customs, as well as land and social/economic life. It was a time, in Petrovsky-Shtern’s account, when Jews were not seen as alien to the land, when their economic activity was prized, their work rewarded, their rights respected in the Russian courts, and their traditions, although often at odds with the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, allowed to flourish. Admittedly, these 50 years form but a small part of the 1,000 years of Jewish habitation in the territories of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great and adjoining lands. It’s a situation reminiscent of the brief period described by the weary husband in the great Soviet film, The Commissar, who sings happily as he repairs the roof of his house; when asked why he is so happy, he responds, “The Whites are gone and the Reds haven’t yet come back!”
Nevertheless, these 50 years of a complex equilibrium among Jewish, Russian and Polish interests fueled the growth of the Jewish shtetl into one of the most important accomplishments of East European Jewry as both economic and cultural engine. “Far more nuanced than just ‘a state of mind’ or a ‘locus of memory,’” the author writes. “The shtetl embodied action—economic and manufacturing, religious and educational, political and civic, cultural and criminal…” When economic, social and political interests aligned, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racial and ethnic hatred receded into manageable and sometimes even productive elements of the larger historical reality.
In Sholem Aleichem’s memoir From the Fair, he writes about his astonishment as a boy watching his pious Uncle Pinney perform a peasant dance at a wedding. “How,” Aleichem reflects, “did Uncle Pinney learn that dance?”—unable as a child in the late 1860s or early 1870s to imagine a pious Hasid sharing so lustily in the surrounding gentile culture. Indeed, by then the intense activity Petrovsky-Shtern has brought to life in his book was largely a thing of the past, the victim of Russian nationalism initially directed against the interests of the Polish aristocracy that still hung on to its ancestral traditions, lands and national aspirations, despite having been absorbed by Catherine the Great into the Russian imperium.
Uncle Pinney would have learned that dance during the Golden Age when Jews and Slavs had formed what Petrovsky-Shtern calls a “Judeo-Slavic brotherhood.” This brotherhood, a significant part of the 50-year Golden Age, was directed largely against the interests and restrictions of the Russian authorities in the business of smuggling goods from Western Europe into Catherine’s domains. “Smuggling grew into a cross-cultural business involving everybody—Catholic urban dwellers and impoverished gentry, Christian Orthodox peasants, clerks, Cossacks, Tartars, runaway prisoners, and deserters of all creeds… For some fifty years, smuggling remained a beneficial multiethnic enterprise.” As long as a power vacuum in these borderlands persisted, this multiethnic brotherhood could thrive, but it was doomed once the Russian state began to assert its interests in earnest under Nicholas I.
Russian nationalist ideology likewise doomed the intense activity of the shtetl itself, because it was difficult to control and regulate, and furthermore it served the interests of the Polish aristocracy that owned the towns. The nationalism was not based on anti-Semitic, racial hatred. But it soon turned into anti-Semitism under the influence of the Russian state’s effort to destroy Jewish shtetl economic life and turn the peasantry against the Polish landowners.
Petrovsky-Shtern’s narrative is replete with unexpected details of Jewish life in the shtetl, such as the powerful role of women, violence, the importance of the liquor trade, the open mockery of the Church by Jewish teenagers, the role of the Russian courts in deciding shtetl disputes, the absorption of Yiddish into Ukrainian argot, shtetl architecture and home decoration. Almost all of this had already been lost or excluded from collective Jewish consciousness by 1891, when Simon Dubnow called for the first wide-scale collection effort of material Jewish culture. Today this story helps explain the great efflorescence of Jewish creativity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in every sector of cultural, social and political life. The liberation of Jewish art and thought, the economic role Jewish immigrants to America have played, the political and social impact Jews have had throughout the world in the 20th century have been in many ways a fulfillment of the promise of that Golden Age.
Jonathan Brent is executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.